If Lily James could play any role from cinematic history, what would it be? “That’s a tough question,” says the actress, who you’ll probably recognize as Rose in Downton Abbey and Disney’s princess Cinderella. She wrinkles her nose in concentration. “I was watching The People vs. Larry Flynt last night,” she offers finally, referring to the ’90s biopic of the American porn baron, starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt and Courtney Love as his stripper girlfriend, Althea Leasure. “Courtney Love in that,” she drops her voice to a whisper. “Oh, God, incredible. It would be good to go that far, to go into a space and be with a director and a group of people and just let everything go. That would be cool.”
This is an interesting moment for James. After a deftly timed flirtation with darker, edgier subject matter in last year’s Baby Driver, plus an eye-catching appearance as Churchill’s secretary in Darkest Hour, the 29-year-old actress is raising her game with three female-led features that promise to position her as a British leading lady with international clout. First up is the long-awaited film adaptation of beloved historical novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, directed by Mike Newell. Later this month there’s Little Woods, an indie gem developed by its 28-year-old director Nia DaCosta in a Sundance incubator; and finally July’s sun-drenched, all-singing, all-dancing sequel Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again, in which James plays Donna (aka Meryl Streep’s younger self).
“I’ve always had role models. Even when I was younger. I always fancied boys, but I was in love with women”
It is the morning after the Oscars, and James and I are meeting at a north London cafe close to the actress’s home. Ever-so-slightly disheveled, she could be any cute London girl – dressed in reworked vintage jeans (“From Austin”), a huge overcoat, Burberry plaid scarf and sloppy sweater sourced from a local boutique – if it weren’t for the Julia Roberts-level mega-wattage of her beauty, which she only really switches on once we’re ensconced at our table and sipping coffee. After months of Mamma Mia!-ing (“So intense, because I had to sing, I had to dance… and I felt kind of like I was going to screw it up”), she is recovering. “Seeing friends that I haven’t seen in so long and just not feeling guilty about being able to drink wine every day. I can eat what I want and not go to the gym and just be really lazy.” Ergo, she spent Oscars night in bed (asleep), waking to excited text messages from her actor beau Matt Smith (currently out in Los Angeles) about Gary Oldman’s Darkest Hour win. Since then, she’s mostly been watching Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech: “So many times. Like on repeat! I met her at the BAFTAs and she is just a complete rock star. She’s just so completely herself.”
“I’d had a really bad day and Helena Bonham Carter said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I have one great downer a week. It lets people know you are human’”
Being “so completely herself” is something that James is more and more concerned with lately. She shares some advice she once received on the set of Cinderella: “I’d had a really, really bad day. I was just freaking out and Helena Bonham Carter said to me, ‘Oh, God, don’t worry. I have one great downer a week. It lets people know you are human. Just going, ‘I have permission to f**k this up and get upset and get things wrong.’” It is, she says, all about being “honest”. Also, “You can get really bogged down with what you think people think of you,” she eye-rolls, confiding her hope that the Time’s Up movement will help liberate actresses from the sorts of stereotyping and paranoid overthinking that can bedevil careers. On that note, she admits she originally passed on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a film set on the Channel Island following the Second World War, “but then I kept thinking about it, and actually it’s rare to find scripts that are so full of heart.”
I tell her I love her portrayal of the headstrong author Juliet – spunky, imperfect and defiantly mulish. “Ha! I also like that she was, yes, very stubborn. She should be sort of content because she’s made money and she’s writing columns, and she’s got this very flashy boyfriend. But she decides to drop everything to find out what it means to be in control of her own life.” The film boasts a number of glorious female characters spurred by passion and high principles. “Oh, God, yes!” agrees James. “In a way, I’ve always had role models. Even when I was younger. I always fancied boys, but I was in love with women… And I think that’s what Juliet finds, that kind of role model is really important in her unlocking of her own path.”
Speaking of role models, can we talk about playing young Meryl in Mamma Mia! 2? “Um. Oh, God. Terrifying. I tried not to focus on the Meryl Streep-ness of it all, but tried to focus on the Donna Sheridan-ness of it all. Having said that, I did go through all of Meryl’s movies, especially stuff from when she was younger. I loved watching Postcards from the Edge – there’s a spunky kind of madness where she sings in that – and even Death Becomes Her.”
Her first encounter on set with Streep was nothing short of epic: “She was singing this song in a chapel and it was so emotional. I was sat outside knowing I was about to meet her. And crying. And it was like: Hold it together, Lily! It was too much!” She laughs. “But she was just so cool. We had to do this dance together and she gave it all to me, she let me take my moment.”
“Meryl Streep was singing this song in a chapel and it was so emotional. I was sat outside knowing I was about to meet her. And crying. And it was like: Hold it together, Lily! But she was just so cool. She let me take my moment”
Ironically, given what a resolute and unapologetic ABBA fangirl James is, her agents were initially quite sheepish about pitching the role. “I was like, ‘Are you crazy? I can’t wait. You’ve got me totally wrong here!’” As the fates would have it, there was only one available weekend for James to audition and it happened to coincide with Glastonbury Festival, which she was due to attend with Smith. “So it was a real argument!” she laughs. In the end, Smith collected her from the read-through in the car, “we went straight to Glastonbury and I think I got the part that weekend, but my agents knew not to call me, because I wouldn’t have been reachable!”
Coincidentally, Smith was the guest on Radio 4’s iconic interview show Desert Island Discs the day before our meeting, where he told an anecdote about the pair meeting Arcade Fire on a road trip and taking a spontaneous detour to Canada, where they joined the band on stage. “And we wore bobbleheads oversized papier mâché mask heads!” says James fervently. “He forgot to mention that – we danced on stage with bobbleheads with Arcade Fire. So cool.”
Smith went on to share his thoughts on fatherhood and children, of which he hoped for “lots”. “No comment!” laughs Lily, mustering some faux outrage. “Yeah, a lot of our friends are having kids. Two of my closest girlfriends just had babies and I adore them – it’s amazing to see what that brings to your life. You know, it becomes the most important thing, and that kind of shift is something I look forward to.”
“A lot of our friends are having kids. It becomes the most important thing, and that shift is something I look forward to”
I wouldn’t usually ask the question, but chroniclers of such matters noted a giant diamond sparkler on James’s ring finger on the night of the BAFTAs, so are the two about to become Mr and Mrs Smith? James laughs. “I’m just not very superstitious about rings. It’s stupid, probably, but I just put rings on any finger.” She flashes her digits, which today are stacked with all manner of delicate gold and diamond ring candy. “Also, that was a f**k-off ring. I mean, Jesus. That ring’s worth one million pounds…”
Time is nearly up, but there’s just enough to ask about her next trick. “I would like to play a musician. Janis Joplin, I would love that. There are some Dusty Springfield conversations going around…” That mischievous smile again. “I really like to transform into a character.” My mind is now racing. Lily James as Courtney Love? Matt Smith as Kurt Cobain? Somebody needs to option that, fast.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is in UK theaters on April 20 and available on Netflix from August 10
On The Record
With her all-singing, all-dancing role in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James is clearly well-versed in ABBA. But which other artists does she listen to when she’s at home? Press play to watch her wax lyrical about her favorite musical memories in an exclusive behind-the-scenes video
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.